Biblical survey of culture

What is culture?

To understand the culture is to understand the people,

and this means an imaginative understanding.”

T.S. Eliot

Culture is notoriously difficult to define. For some, culture represents the artistic tastes of the social elite: opera, art house cinema, or avante-garde art. Others think of culture as more of a political reality and seek to change it through the ballot box. For others culture has more to do with advertising, family, education, or religion. Rather than being an obstacle, this definitional difficulty can actually provide a rich understanding of culture, because culture includes all of these areas and more. Even so, culture is more than merely the sum of all its varied parts. It is a way of life for particular people connected in real, tangible ways. Sociologist Clifford Geertz described culture this way: “Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs.” Culture is the webs of significance and meaning that hold us up. But culture is more than just the webs; it is also the making and cultivating of goods that form the webs themselves. For this paper, culture will be defined as the way people make sense of the world as they make something of the world.

Culture Created

In the beginning, there was culture. And it was good.

Genesis begins with a Creator calling the cosmos into existence. Each “let there be” brought forth something new to contribute to the growing complexity of goods. God as Creator was busy connecting this complexity of goods—day and night, sun and moon, plants and animals, water, earth and air—into a gloriously Good place for man to “live and work and have our being.” In other words, God was busy making a culture in which to situate his image-bearers. 

When he finished his culture-making through speech, he did something surprising. He stopped his rhythm of “let there be…and it was good,” and got his hands dirty in the dust of his creation. The second chapter of Genesis zooms into the creation story and shows him coming down into it. He reached down and scooped up the soil and, like a master craftsman, worked the clay into the form of a man. After breathing life into the man, God took off his pottery apron and took up his gardening tools: “And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed” (Gen 2:8). 

Adam then follows in his maker’s footsteps when he is placed in the garden, “to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). God gives the man the work of naming the animals, a naming that continues to follow in the culture-making footsteps of God’s “let there be’s.” Adam begins his life in the pre-fall paradise by making and cultivating goods and meaning. God then makes a woman from the rib of the man and brings her to him, creating a society in the garden, one modeled after the society within the Trinity: “let us make man in our image…So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:26-27). Rather than making the woman in the same way as the creation (speaking) or as the man (breathed-on clay), God made her out of the man and walked her “down the aisle” in order to present her back to the man in the culturally-significant act of a proto-wedding ceremony. He invited the man to “make meaning” of this monumental event, which he does by making the first poem in history: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Gen 2:23). 

God speaks to the newly-married man and woman, giving them what was coined by twentieth century Dutch theologian Klaas Schilder as the cultural mandate: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen 1:28). This mandate helps them to understand and transmit meaning (“What am I here for?”) to further generations, and it gives them work to do. God’s image- bearers are to make and to cultivate. They make more bearers of God’s image in order to fill the earth with his glory, and they are to cultivate the created order, ruling over it as God’s beneficent vice-regents. Before the fall, man existed as God’s representatives, living within and making culture to his glory. 

Culture Degraded

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”

William Butler Yeats

God’s command to Adam, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:16-17), was a command to trust him and an invitation to make meaning. The trees were a delight to the eyes and good for food (Gen 3:6) and were squarely in the midst of their garden home (Gen 2:9). Adam and Eve could not escape them, perhaps even resting under their shade as they seem to be doing when the crafty serpent comes to tempt them. These trees situate them within a story and invite them to make meaning: “Why did God put them here if we must not eat their good fruit?” “Why did he make their fruit look so good?” “What is special about these two trees?” Adam was meant to tell the story of God’s warning to Eve. They were meant to direct their story-telling and meaning-making toward trusting God, even when it was most difficult. 

The fall was not just the tragic decision of two individual creatures;, it was a cultural failure. They fell because they cut the webs of meaning that held them up. They wanted to “be like God” (Gen 3:5), forgetting their story; they were already made in God’s image and tasked with ruling as God’s representatives. But God did not scrap his project, nor did he fundamentally alter their cultural mandate. Man would still be tasked with making and cultivating goods and meaning in the context of a relational society in the created order. 

After they made leaf underwear to cover their newly discovered shame—itself a cultural activity—God cursed their work. The pleasure of making image-bearers would now come with the sting of multiplied pain. Their harmonious society would now be riddled with the desire to rule over each other. Their work would no longer be in the rich Edenic soil, but in the thorns and thistles of the fields. Yet, even in the terrible curse there is cultural hope. God gives their story a redemptive twist and invites them to make meaning when he curses the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen 3:15). God then comes back into his creation and gets his hands dirty again, as he did in the making of man, creating leather garments for them (Gen 3:21), an act that produced goods—stronger protection against the thorns and thistles—and meaning—an innocent animal shed its blood so that God could cover the shame of his children. In their garden betrayal, man rebelled at the awful cost of severing their relationship with their maker and bending and twisting their nature, degrading and making more difficult their mandate to make culture.

In the midst of the post-fall world degraded by the effects of sin, there is another beacon of cultural hope, something that has been called common grace by theologians over the ages. Common grace is common because it belongs to all people in all cultures and times. It is grace because it is a gift from God. God has gifted all humanity air in the lungs and blood in the body. The image of God, tarred though it may be, was not lost in man. 

Common grace in the fallen world can be traced back to God’s response to the first betrayal. Though they were warned that “in the day you eat of it you shall surely die,” Adam and Even did not die! It is true enough that a spiritual death occurred, as evidenced by their naked shame and hiding from God, but we have no reason to think they understood God’s warning in those terms. They ate and God graced. There would indeed be death that day, but it was to be a spotless animal in their place. Common grace was evident even in their banishment from Eden: “‘Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever’—‘therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken” (Gen 3:22-23). They did not deserve to be saved from the terrible prospect of eternal slavery to sin, yet God gifted them with a “normal” life and an eventual escape from their sin-poisoned world. God graced them with children. When one of their children murdered his younger brother, God graced him with a mark of protection (Gen 4:15), because he was still a bearer of the Image, and as such he would always live under the common grace of his maker. 

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that his image- bearers move off in two directions—one (the line of Seth) honoring God and remembering their story, and the other (the line of the wicked, grace-marked Cain) honoring themselves and forgetting their story. Common grace is strikingly clear in the story of the line of Cain. Though they did not honor God, his descendants were skilled city-builders, shepherds, musicians, and blacksmiths (Gen 4:17-22). All of this culture- making was accomplished by men and women who woke up each morning under the same sun as the line of Seth with the common grace of inventive minds and able bodies. It turns out that grace, like rain, falls on the just and unjust alike (Mt 5:45). 

Culture Restored

Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.”

Isaiah 60:3

God’s people were always meant to be a culture within a culture. God chose them, though small in number (Deut 7:7), to represent his kingdom to the surrounding kingdoms. He gave them their own laws and worship practices in order to draw their hearts toward him and to set them apart as a distinctively good society. When his people failed he did not destroy them as they deserved. He restored them. Even when he drove them into exile and scattered them among foreign lands, he preserved them and promised them deliverance. He brought a remnant of them back to Jerusalem, during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, and allowed them to rebuild their temple. Throughout their rough history he continued to speak promises to them through the prophets. He promised that he would send the true King to rule them peaceably. He promised a future good life together—a life where they would work fertile soil and eat and drink together under the promised King. 

God’s promises were not culture-less promises to individuals. Cultures and peoples will be redeemed. Swords will not be burned up, but hammered (presumably by skilled blacksmiths) into gardening tools. Feasts will not cease to exist, but will be celebrated with gladness and shared memories. God spoke these promises over and over again to his people, until the prophets’ mouths were closed for hundreds of years. Into this expectant silence, in a nondescript stable in Bethlehem, a child was born. 

God’s very son in the flesh. The promised King came into a uniquely first century Galileean culture. He lived in a family, wore clothes, ate regional cuisine, attended synagogue, and worked as a carpenter. He who stands above every culture became en-cultured. He came into the culture that He created, not only to restore our relationship with God, but to restore a culture that was meant to display the kingdom of God on earth. He gathered his twelve disciples—a number representative of the twelve tribes of Israel—and taught them and others about life in the Kingdom. While he lived among them he represented the culture of the kingdom, one that both transcends and includes the best parts of the many varied cultures of his image- bearers. His kingdom is a multi-cultural kaleidoscope of colors and flavors that are characterized by unity and diversity, servanthood, peace, hope, and love. 

God’s son was given the name Jesus by his earthly parents under the direction of God’s messenger. The name itself—a combination of “Yahweh” and “saves”—is an invitation in making meaning. This child will be the one to receive the throne of David and his reign will be unending (Lk 1:30-33). He fulfilled this promise by fulfilling the righteous requirements of the law of the kingdom and dying to bear the shame and punishment due his enemies. He then rose victorious over death and the bent kingdom of the serpent. Before he ascended to heaven, he commissioned his followers: “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:18-20). Luke records another, related commissioning: “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Hints of the cultural mandate echo through these commissionings. His followers were to make image-bearers, filling the earth with the glory of God. They were to make a new culture by inviting others into the story of God, a story that provided “webs” of meaning to make sense of life in this world. Rather than replacing the cultural mandate, Jesus gave his followers orders for how they were to continue their work. In fact, very few of his followers quit their jobs or left their homes to pursue vocational mission work. Centurions remained centurions, tent makers remained tent makers, families remained families, yet their life gained new focus and meaning as they lived with a new purpose to be his witnesses to all people. Jesus had not called them out of culture, but had given them a new culture with new webs of meaning and significance within the surrounding culture. 

Culture Consummated

“I have come home at last! This is my real country!...This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it til now…come further up, come further in!”

C.S. Lewis 

His followers quickly learned that even a redeemed culture had its problems. Generosity was not shared by all (Acts 5:1-12), old racial and cultural prejudices sometimes remained (Acts 6:1; Gal 2:11-12), and even missionary friends argued and split ways (Acts 15:36-40). The painful reality is that the kingdom, though it has been inaugurated in and by Jesus, still awaits its consummation at the fullness of time. The gospel tells us that, contra Yeats, the center (Christ) can hold. But things still fall apart. 

The putting- back- together of all things at the consummation of the kingdom will not be, as is often taught, a total destruction of the physical and cultural world. Heaven will not be a bloodless, ethereal world of clouds and harps and chubby baby-angels. The scriptures tell a different story—the story of a people who lost a garden but will gain a city: “And he…showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates…” (Rev 21:10-12). The city will look both like and unlike the great cities within our earthly cultures. There will be walls and gates and roads and artwork and a river running through a great park. Yet, it will be so radiant with God’s glory that it will have no need of street lights or the moon or even the sun. And God will be so present with his people that they will have no need for a temple or church. The gates will never need to close because there will be no danger or darkness. In the place of dangerous marauders, distinctive people groups and civic leaders will pour in through the gates and bring their gifts and glory to give to God and to beautify his new city. 

The story moves from the garden to the city, but it also moves circuitously from the tree of life lost to the tree of life gained: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:1-2). In addition to the startling reality that there will be time in the new creation (months), we learn that the nations, rather than being destroyed or flattened, will be healed by the leaves of the tree! The nations, with their diverse cultural contributions, will live and worship together in a rich harmony: 

“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev 7:9-10)

Sopranos, altos, tenors, and bass’, wearing and bearing cultural goods, will contribute their uniqueness to the song of praise.

Culture Engaged

“Fear is not a Christian habit of the mind.”

Marilynn Robinson

As members of a culture within the cultures, Christians have a difficult task. We live in the time between the times, what has been called the “already, not yet” of the kingdom. As we await the new city and the consummation of the kingdom, what do we do? When we recognize that culture is the way people make sense of the world as they make something of the world, we also recognize that there is no escaping cultural engagement. Though much can and has been said about the way in which Christians ought to engage culture, for the sake of simplicity we will look at four actions that every Christian can do in whatever cultural setting they find themselves in.


The scriptures end with hopeful waiting: “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen” (Rev 22:20-21). Followers of the “Lord Jesus” must not put kingdom hopes in political leaders or “Christian” athletes and pop stars. We await the return of the true king. We have hope for the world around us but our expectations must be chastened. We will not be the ones to build the city. It is not, in the end, ours to build. The city will descend and the kingdom is received as a gift (Heb 12:28). We are to cultivate what James K.A. Smith, in Awaiting the King, describes as a “posture of uplift, tethered by hope to a coming king.” 


Jesus taught his followers to pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt 6:10). This prayer has a forked aim, one side longer and less direct than the other. The long aim is that our prayers would help usher in the promised kingdom in all its power and glory. We pray for the heavenly city to descend and the king to wipe away our tears and the wedding banquet to begin. When we do not know what to do or how to make a difference in the world, prayer is the one activity always available to us, and it is good that the followers of King Jesus would pray for the consummation of the kingdom. 

However, the scriptural record and historical evidence often leads God’s people to despair and hopelessness. This is where the shorter and more direct aim of prayer can be helpful in cultural engagement. This aim is for the kingdom outposts of local churches to grow into communities that represent the culture of the kingdom here and now. These communities are filled with people who gather to worship, bringing unique cultures of their neighborhoods, families, ethnicities, and workplaces. When God’s people pray for his kingdom to come in their church, they are acting as cultural change agents, laboring together with God for his kingdom outposts to shine light into the darkness of the watching world. 


“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). Christians, like all other people, are called to work while on this earth. Hard work excellently done reflects something of the image of God and brings him glory. And because God worked to create the cosmos, every legitimate vocation has inner dignity because it follows in the pattern of our maker. When Jesus called together his first followers, they were fishermen and tax-collectors, doctors and tanners. What their vocation was mattered far less than how they worked at it. This means that rather than only missionaries, priests, and company presidents, all Christians engage culture when we work—creating goods and meaning—with the ethics of the kingdom guiding our efforts. As Luther said, “If he is a Christian tailor, he will say: I make these clothes because God has bidden me do so, so that I can earn a living, so that I can help and serve my neighbor.”


God is on the move, growing Christians into the culture of the kingdom, so we will be ready to receive it when it comes in full. We need not feel the pressure to create the perfect society on earth, or to build the kingdom now. We need not claw our way upstream of culture or worry overmuch when our famous “Christian” political leaders and pop stars fall short or fail morally. We represent a culture that is coming. 

Jesus, at the outset of his most famous sermon, said, “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?...You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Mt 5:13-14). Salt and light are qualities that cannot be gained, they just are. They are given by their maker. Jesus is king over every square inch and in his sovereign wisdom has placed every single one of his followers squarely in the midst of whatever cultures we find ourselves in. We are to season and preserve like salt; adding the flavor of the kingdom into the families, workplaces, schools, and political realities we find ourselves situated within. As we season and preserve, our faithfulness to the hidden kingdom of Christ is to shine like a city on a hill—illuminating the path and captivating the hearts of the weary travelers wandering in the dark streets of the fallen world. 

Rest, because the king is on the throne and he wants to use your faithfulness exactly where you are. Work, not as an excuse to evangelize or as a means to build the kingdom on earth, but excellently and to the glory of God. Pray for the kingdom to come in the culture of the church now, and in the surrounding world on the day of the return of the king. And keep waiting hopefully: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds” (Rev 1:7).

Work, what is it good for?

Teach me thy love to know;

That this new light, which now I see,

May both the work and workman show.

George Herbert, “Mattens”

“What do you do?” 

This is often how we get to know someone. What do you do? So much of our lives—from our childhood hopes and dreams, to the grind of our 9-5 work days, to the hopes for retirement rest—rotates around what we do. It is quite normal, even inevitable, that we find much of our identification in our work.  

The danger for the modern man is not that he identifies with his work, but that his understanding of work itself is broken. At worst he considers it meaningless; a terrible necessity that stands as a barrier to personal fulfillment. Or it becomes so full of meaning that he becomes enslaved to it. One has to look no farther than Tesla losing executives at an alarming rate, due to the “pace” of the organization (employees tell stories of finding Elon Musk sleeping under tables in conference rooms, exhausted from overwork), or to the unhealthy work environment at Amazon detailed in a recent NY Times exposé, to see that when work is invested with ultimate meaning it becomes a terrible and destructive master.

These broken views of work simply do not work. What we need, instead, is a recovery of a comprehensive view of work as vocation. It is common to use the words “work” and “vocation” interchangeably, as though vocation is simply another word for what we do for a living. However, a comprehensive understanding of vocation is full of meaning rooted in God’s activity and plans for putting the world to rights. The word vocation comes from the Latin word “vocare,” which means “to be called.” The 15th century reformer Martin Luther, committed as he was to the principle of the “priesthood of all believers” translated 1 Corinthians 7:20 as: “Each one should remain in the calling in which he was called,” and used this verse to argue against the millennia old Roman Catholic teaching about the special “calling” of the priesthood over and above the laity. Luther saw that this sacred-secular divide did not only create problems inside the church, but also led to the common man understanding his work as unmoored from God’s plans and unseen by God’s eyes. The average worker found himself in precisely the same predicament as modern man—weary and laboring under a broken definition of work.

Instead, Luther argued, when one is called by God into the Kingdom through faith in Christ, one is also called into the work and social connections that God has placed one in, regardless of the perceived sacredness of the work. One might still seek their freedom or advancement (1 Cor 7:23), but their work in the here and now is made holy by the calling of God. There are not two realities (sacred and secular), but one reality held together by Christ. And there are not two stories, but one story moving steadily toward the restoration of creation in and through Christ. The comprehensive view of vocation unites “sacred” and “secular” work into the one category of “calling,” and reminds us that in order to be called there must be one doing the calling. Our vocation is ultimately decided by a good and sovereign Lord over all creation, one who can be trusted and is worthy of our ultimate allegiance and love. 


The significance—and ultimately the quality—of the work we do is determined by our understanding of the story in which we are taking part.”

—Wendell Berry

Work as vocation means that we see our work as God’s particular calling for our lives and as one thread in the grand fabric of God’s ongoing story of redemption. A comprehensive view of work as vocation reminds us that God is the Lord over all creation, and that He has called us to our particular work. Viewing our vocation as a calling by God helps us to see that our work fits into a much larger story—our work is one thread in the fabric of God’s redemptive story. When it comes to story, each individual word contributes to the whole, imbuing each word with special meaning. Flannery O’Connor, herself a master of story, tells us, “A story is a way to say something that cannot be said any other way, and it takes every word of the story to say what that means.” In the same way, it takes every “work” to say what God’s grand story means. From the plowman to the professor, God uses every legitimate work (work that is toward the common good and does not violate God’s laws) as words in his story of putting the world to rights again in and through Christ. 

Work, created

The story begins with God working: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). Out of the dark and formless nothing, God spoke and matter was made. Stars and moons, water and land, plants and animals; all the work of his creative mind and all brought about through his creative call. Then the Creator-God does something surprising, be breaks his creative pattern in order to come down to his creation. He dirties his hands, planting a garden and forming man from the dust of the ground and woman from the body of the man (Gen 2:5-9). 

He then takes the newly formed man and woman and sets them down into his good creation and commissions them with the task to work. They are to, “fill the earth and subdue it” (Get 1:28), and to “work it and keep it” (Get 2:15). They were to pattern their work after their maker and represent him as vice-regents working for his glory and for the good of his creation. Mankind working together with God was to be the means of human and creaturely flourishing under God’s good rule and reign, and no one was to be exempt from participation. As Bonhoeffer says in his essay Christ, Reality, and Good, “the work founded in paradise calls for cocreative human deeds. Through them a world of things and values is created that is destined for the glory and service of Jesus Christ. It is not creation out of nothing, like God’s creating, but it is creation of new things on the basis of God’s initial creation. No one can withdraw from this mandate.” Work is not, as is commonly assumed, a temporary evil, but an eternal good in which we cocreate with God. But work, as all good things, was bent and twisted by the fall of mankind. 

Work, frustrated

Knowing that God worked and created us to be cocreative fellow workers in his project for human flourishing on earth (under his good rule) is good. But, as we all know, sometimes works just stinks. Sometimes the work-a-day grind wears us down and saps us of energy and joy. And the world has nothing to offer us beyond the empty promises of productivity or “impact”—promises that are empty not because they are bad desires but because they cannot stand up to the weight of the promises themselves. We will always be let down because our work will never be productive enough and our impact will always remain immeasurable.

Additionally, we are told over and again that we are merely biological masses of atoms, spinning meaninglessly through time on the space-orb of Earth. We must, we are told, make our own meaning and create our own destiny. This story is what the scriptures describe as “life under the sun,” in which the most meaning and happiness one can hope for is summed up by: “eat, drink, be merry, for tomorrow we die” (Eccl 8:15; 1 Cor 15:32) As Macbeth put it in a particularly low moment:

“[Life] is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, 

Signifying nothing.”

The comprehensive view of work as vocation strongly repudiates this hopelessness. Life is a tale, our narrators are idiots, it is full of sound and fury, yet it signifies something—something immeasurably more. We all intuitively know this, which is why we keep hoping our work will be more than it is. Work as vocation reminds us that there is an author, one who stands above the fray and guides us through the sound and fury toward a certain and good end. Work does stink; not because it is meaningless, but because its meaning is bent and twisted by the fall. When our first representatives rebelled and fell from grace, they were cursed by God and death was introduced to their bodies and souls. But the curse was not just a separation between God and man. Their rebellion cost us joy and meaning and productivity in our work: 

“Cursed is the ground because of you;

    in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;

thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;

    and you shall eat the plants of the field.

By the sweat of your face

    you shall eat bread,

till you return to the ground,

    for out of it you were taken;

for you are dust,

    and to dust you shall return (Gen 3:17b-19)”

Thorns and thistles. Pain and sweat. Our work has been frustrated.

Work, redeemed

Sometimes work stinks and sometimes, sadly, human work cuts against the grain of God’s good design. The world has been entrusted to us as a gift, but we have made a mess of it. Our neighbors have been given to us as a family, but we have made enemies of them. To paraphrase W.B. Yeats, things fall apart and our work cannot hold it together. Into this mess God sent his Son to redeem his people and his creation—which, groaning under the weight of sin, waits eagerly for the consummation of His redemptive plans (Romans 8:18-22). The coming of the Son of God inaugurated a new cosmic reality, one in which our work matters.

We work for the love of God.

When Paul wrote to men and women in Colossae who were trapped in slavery, he encouraged them to work for the pleasure of the one who is beyond and above their earthly masters: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ” (Col 3:23-24). Paul reminds them that they are seen in their difficult work—not only by Paul but by the “Lord Christ;” the image of the invisible God who holds the universe together (Col 1:15-17). They have a true and good Lord, who himself became their slave in order to work for their deliverance and eventual inheritance as heirs. He is worthy of their work, and they will one day bend their knee in perfect allegiance, but as free and willing worshippers delighting in their Savior King (Phil 2:6-11).

Work as vocation teaches us that no matter our working circumstances, we are to “work heartily” for the love and glory of God (1 Cor 10:31).

We work for the love of neighbor.

When we work as though we are called by God, we work for the common good. Good work, whether we see the outcome or not, contributes to human flourishing especially when we remember that God has given us neighbors to love through our work. In one of his sermons, Luther said, “If he is a Christian tailor, he will say: I make these clothes because God has bidden me do so, so that I can earn a living, so that I can help and serve my neighbor. When a Christian does not serve the other, God is not present; that is not Christian living.” Earning a living is a legitimate and good motivation for work. But even that is transformed and sanctified when we see that our living is to be directed toward the love of our neighbor.

We work for the love of the work. 

In her excellent essay, Why Work?, Dorothy Sayers tells us that work “should, in fact, be thought of as a creative activity undertaken for the love of the work itself; and that man, made in God’s image, should make things, as God makes them, for the sake of doing well a thing that is well worth doing.” Work as vocation reminds us that there is intrinsic value in doing excellent work. When we work for the love of the work itself, we follow our maker who looked over all of his work and declared it good. We are reminded of Luther’s advice to cobblers, that their calling is not to make shoddy boots with crosses on them, but to make excellent boots that will serve their neighbors. A cobbler working for the love of the work ultimately contributes to the common good because their neighbors need good boots that will last, not shoddy boots with crosses on them. In loving their work and in “doing well a thing that is well worth doing,” they contribute to the common good of their neighbors and they please God, who is, as Hebrews tells us, “not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love that you have shown for his name in serving the saints, as you still do.” (Hebrews 6:10).

Work, finished 

Sabbath. Vacation. Retirement. We need rest. God designed us this way, and when we rest we display something of the imago Dei as we follow him in his rest: “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation” (Gen. 2:2-3). Rest is the created and natural reward of work, just as a family feast is the natural reward of tilling, planting, weeding, watering, and harvesting the family garden. 

God made our bodies in a way that demands rest. In our sleep and on our off days we are meant to remember that God works for us. Daily and weekly rhythms of rest remind us that God delights in us as his workmanship—once hopelessly spoiled and broken—now made new and whole in Christ. We remember the Gospel, that he was at work from before the foundation of time seeking and saving us. And we remember that he is still at work holding the creation together and building and advancing his kingdom. Rest reminds us that, while we are cocreative agents in kingdom work, ultimately we are recipients of the kingdom (Heb 12:28). It is his gift to us. In rest we become thankful lovers again, remembering that the world and our work cannot be measured up by its utility. Our rest reminds us that while we sleep and sabbath, he is working, and that, “unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps 127:1).

Work, forever

Finally, there is a teleological dimension to a comprehensive view of vocation. Our work is not only a result of what God has done for us in the past though Christ. It is not only a result of what God is doing for and through us in our present work. It is also aimed toward a certain telos, or end. All good stories have a good resolution in the end.

Seeing our work as God’s calling within God’s story reminds us that there is a rest beyond daily and weekly rhythms. There is a rest yet to come: “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Heb 4:9-10). In Christ our work has a final telos in our entering into his rest. We will finally and forever experience the peace and flourishing of paradise, a peace and flourishing unmingled with pain. But, there is more to the story.

Rest is our reward. But it is a rest that is in and through Christ. It is Christ himself who is the ultimate telos of our work and when we meet him in our resurrected bodies we—his workers—will finally be complete and whole in his image. He will be our rest, but there is still work to do. Consider how strange it would be if God worked, then created work in the perfect paradise garden, then continued to use it in a redeemed way throughout his story of redemption, and then, finally, did away with it completely. It would be strange for us to spend most of our waking lives working in some way or another, only to find ourselves floating in the clouds for a never ending workless existence. This is not the story of the scriptures. In his final vision of the end of the story (Rev 20-21), the apostle John sees a city descending from heaven, replete with walls, gates, foundations and streets. There will be cultivation of natural resources. The nations will bring their glory and gifts into the city to honor the King. There will be culture. There will be flourishing. And there will be work to do in the rest of God.

Work, done well and aimed toward God’s glory and the common good, shapes us into virtuous people. People prepared for an eternity of restful work in the kingdom centered on the true and forever King. Christ has finished his painful work and entered into his seated rest. And yet Christ continues to work in the midst of his rest. In the same way our work will be transformed. No longer will we fight with thorns and thistles. He will make all things, including our work, new.

As the Lord of the Rings nears its end, Tolkien takes Sam and Frodo back home to the Shire. The evil of Sauron has been destroyed, yet they find that there is still work to do. Sam turns to Frodo and asks how to best use the gift lady Galadriel entrusted to him (a small box containing a fine grey powder and one seed) in his gardening. Frodo advises him: “use all the wits and knowledge you have of your own Sam, and then use the gift to help your work and better it.” In the end, as both Frodo and the audience knows, Sam has been shaped into a virtuous Hobbit-gardener with the wits and knowledge to make good use of the gifts he has been entrusted with.

In the end, as now, we also will have work to do and gifts to use. May we remember that we are part of a bigger story and that our work today will shape us in one direction or the other. May it shape us into men and women who will have wits and knowledge to put God’s gifts to use for the betterment of our work today and for an eternity of flourishing in His good kingdom.